Marriage of same gender people is NOT a matter that is “vital to the life of the church”.
Since the 15th Assembly concluded almost a month ago, there here has discussion in various places claiming that marriage is a matter “vital to the life of the Church”. The consequence of such a view is that the Assembly should be sending its decision to other councils of the church, seeking their “concurrence” on the decision made.
This is all in accord with what Clause 39 of the Constitution of the Uniting Church specifies. That clause itself depends on a sentence in paragraph 15(e) of the Basis of Union, which refers to “matters of vital importance to the church”.
There was a proposal to that effect presented to the 15th Assembly, immediately after the decision on marriage. The debate enabled members of Assembly to put their points of view about this idea. In the end, the Assembly decided that marriage was NOT a matter “vital to the life of the Church”, and so the Assembly did NOT need to seek the “concurrence” of other councils of the church.
But there has been continued discussion of this idea, and some Presbyteries either have already considered, or will soon be considering, such a proposal.
It’s the business of each Presbytery to come to some decision about this, but I think that an airing of the issues involved is helpful. Indeed, a past President, the Rev. Professor Andrew Dutney, has provided a summary of the arguments for and against that were offered to the Assembly in July. You can read that here
I don’t believe that marriage is a matter that is “vital to the life of the church”. Here are twelve reasons why:
- Our Scripture: Marriage is not prominent in scripture. There are descriptive passages which refer to the wife (or wives) of various men, and there are passages in the Law which relate to marriage customs and practices. But there is no prescriptive definition of marriage, nor is there extensive debate about the conditions required for marriage, the ceremony or ceremonies to be conducted to implement marriage. When Jesus refers to marriage, it is something that is narrated in passing (in a discussion of divorce); it is not put forward as a definitive, prescriptive, in-principle statement.
- Our Creeds: Marriage is not mentioned in the historic Creeds: the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, or others which flow from these. There is no indication at all in the early centuries of the church, that this was a matter that was seen as significant, central, or vital to the church.
- Our Confessions: Marriage is barely given any consideration in any of the confessional documents of the previous denominations. It is mentioned in passing the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) question 108 (but only in passing—the discussion relates to unchastity).There is one chapter in the Westminster Confession (1647), ch. XXIV Of Marriage and Divorce, and one chapter in the Savoy Declaration (1658), ch. XXV Of Marriage. The first four paragraphs are the same statements about marriage in both documents, then the Westminister Confession adds some further paragraphs about divorce. These statements set out an understanding of marriage and declare “marriage was ordained for the mutual help of husband and wife”, but nothing is said that in any way indicates it is central, essential, or vital, to the life of Christian faith. (I am grateful to the index of Michael Owen’s Witness of Faith, 1984, for these references.)
- Our History: Marriage has not been a “vital matter” for the Uniting Church over the past decades. When we look in Theology for Pilgrims (2008, ed. Rob Bos and Geoff Thompson), we find a collection of documents under the heading “Core Practices of the Church” which relate Ministry, Ordination, the Sacraments, and the use of the Bible, and further documents relating to Communion, Baptism, and the Ordination of Women, under the heading “Theology in Controversy”. There is nothing in any of these documents, or elsewhere in the book, that suggests that Marriage ought to be considered a “core practice” of the church. The same observation holds for Andrew Dutney’s Backyard Theology (2011), where discussion ranges over a number of matters, but not marriage. And this also applies to Building on the Basis: papers from the Uniting Church in Australia 2000-2011 (2012, ed. Chris Walker) and Being and Doing Church: a Uniting Church Perspective (2015, ed. Chris Walker). (All of these works are indicative, not prescriptive; but their contents are telling.)
- Recent Debate: Only in very recent times has it been specifically proposed that marriage should be regarded as a “vital matter” for the Uniting Church. This was done only when it became clear that the shifts in society relating to same gender marriage were leading to a shift in understanding of same gender marriage across the Uniting Church. In fact, when the discussion about ordaining people of the same gender was resolved (with such people now regularly being ordained and operating within ministry placements), more conservative elements in the church shifted their attention to the discussion about marrying people of the same gender. This is what Andrew Dutney has described as the continuation of the “culture wars” within the church. Since the earlier “benchmark” about faith had shifted, attention was now focussed on a new issue. But prior to this, there was never any claim that this was a matter that was “vital to the life of the church”.
- Our Theology: Nobody within the Uniting Church argues that our Salvation depends on our marital status, or, indeed, on the spiritual health of our marriage. I can’t recall ever seeing that claimed at any point in the history of the church! The notion that salvation is impeded, or challenged, by being divorced, which might have held in some eras of church history and might still be the case in some denominations today, is certainly not something that would be held by the Uniting Church. So I can’t see how marriage, per se, would be in any way vital to our faith or theology or discipleship.
- Our Polity: The practice within the Uniting Church is pastoral concerns about specific matters within the church do not receive blanket and overarching attention; rather, we work contextually and relationally, and decisions about such matters need to be dealt with on case by case basis. This is most certainly what has been happening, in all the discussions over the years about sexuality: about homosexuality (in the 1980s), about homosexuality and leadership (in the 1990s to 2003), and in the discussion about marriage of same gender couples (2012—2018). Indeed, what the 15th Assembly decided with the most recent decision about marrying people of the same gender, is that it is a matter for each Minister or Celebrant to decide whether they will conduct such marriages, and it is a matter for each Church Council to decide whether such marriages will take place on their property. This continues the pattern of sharing responsibility for such matters with the appropriate body within the church.
- Our Constitution: Clause 39 of the Constitution of the Uniting Church has never before been invoked, so there is no precedent for this being applied in this instance. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be invoked, but it does mean that we have no specific guidance from a precedent within our own UCA history.
- Our Processes (1): We need to think about marriage in the context of other very contentious issues which might have been considered to be matters “vital to the faith” according to Clause 39. The Uniting Church has discussed and made decisions about a number of controversial and significant issues over the years (as already noted). We debated long and hard about Baptism—and, even though it is one of the two Sacraments within the UCA, central to our communal expression of faith, and indeed central to the life of the worldwide church in all its denominational manifestations—it was not deemed to be “vital to the faith” in those discussions. We debated long and hard about Ordination—and, even though it defines a central and important way by which we order the life of the church and set apart people for specific ministries in church and in society, it was not deemed to be “vital to the faith” in those discussions. We introduced the ministry of Deacon, defining it in ways quite different from the way that ministry is understood in other denominations, but we never declared this to be “vital to the faith” in the discussions leading up to this decision.
- Our Processes (2): Discussion about marrying people of the same gender has been underway for some years now. It has been discussed in numerous western countries over the past decade, and some countries have determined to introduce it. It has been a focus within Australian society for the past few years, and we have now legislated to enable this to take place. It has been the subject of extensive, open, and honest discussions across the Uniting Church. It has been discussed by the 13th Assembly (2012, Adelaide) and the 14th Assembly (2015, Perth), and now once again at the 15th Assembly (2018, Melbourne). All Synods were invited to make this a feature discussion in their 2017 meetings. Members of multiple Presbyteries and countless Congregations have considered and discussed this matter. It is not something that has been sprung on them without any warning!
- Our Ecumenical Relationships: The fear has been invoked, that our ecumenical partners will cease to recognise us as a part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, and refrain from speaking with us or working with us. I see this as plainly scaremongering. There has been no indication that this would be the case; indeed, I have recently been part of a conversation with the leader of one of the overseas partner churches who attended the Assembly, and when I put this proposition to him, he dismissed it, and said that his church would not act in this way. In fact, he observed, his church remains in partner relationships with denominations which have made similar decisions about same gender marriage, in the UK, the USA, Canada, and Aotearoa New Zealand.
- Our Pastoral Responsibility: We have a pastoral responsibility to deal with this matter in a manner that is sensitive to members of the church and in a manner that ensures that we are providing a safe space for ongoing discussion. There is a long commitment to this, at least in principle:
In 1987, the Assembly Standing Committee affirmed that all baptised Christians belong in the church, regardless of their sexual orientation.
In 1997, the 8th Assembly rejected judgemental attitudes in sexual ethics.
In 2003, the 10th Assembly noted that the placement of ministers was to be undertaken on a case by case basis, and that the matter of a person’s sexual preference or identity was not to be considered.
In 2006, the 11th Assembly underlined the need to ensure that we provide safe communities where people may hold diverse beliefs about sexuality. Yet the continued debate about, and incessant scrutiny of, same gender attracted people is placing immense pressure on them. Pastoral sensitivity would suggest to us, that this is no longer an issue to be debated “in the abstract”, but that any such discussion we have involves real people in real situations, who have been through the emotional wringer in recent years, and whom we should be treating with much greater respect and compassion. Re-opening the matter for further consultation and discussion right across the church will not be helpful in this context.
Christian compassion should surely lead us to the point of saying, this was a difficult decision made in good conscience by faithful people through prayer and discernment. A significantly large proportion of the membership of the 15th Assembly, including people from a wide range of theological perspectives, supported the decision. The leadership provided by this designated council has set the direction, and we are enjoined to respect that decision. The 15th Assembly recognised that there was a diversity of theological and ethical views on the marriage of same gender people. Now, as a Church, we are called to work together to support one another across our diversity and to implement practices that honour and respect each other as members and participants in the one body, the Church.
How can that NOT be what we are now called to do?